Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jul 05 2018

Not really back, but off again soon

Things never really got back to normal around here since I got back from San Francisco. They just kept being strange. Oh, I kept going to work and teaching classes and returning to the Water Curtain Cave at night, but the surreal feeling I’ve had ever since I got back never lost its edge. I’ve been delving into Wiki articles about Erik Satie and how he and Debussy used to hang out in Montmarte and at Le Chat Noir and what that world must have been like. Wiki articles tend to leave out moments and details like smells and feelings while walking down a street or crossing a bridge.

So when I found myself at Jiantan Station with nothing to do for two hours before a gig at the American Club last weekend, I figured I’d just wander in the general direction, hauling my instruments behind me. I walked along the former riverside before they changed the waterway’s course, wondering exactly where the exit to Chiang Kai-shek’s Emergency Fun Slide was. I really, really, didn’t want to enter the American Club earlier than I needed to, so I sat down in the armory park next door, the one dedicated to a couple of large guns that helped defend our outer islands against Chinese attacks in the late 50’s, and sat and thought and listened to the cicadas. But mostly I enjoyed not doing anything in particular, apart from scratching the occasional mosquito bite. Eventually I was joined by Slim, and then it was time to go do the deed.

The local staff inside the complex walls was being wrangled by a heavy blonde man with a German accent. There were lots of stands with the names of various foods and states and football teams or something. One stand, staffed by two people, emphasized the fact that Americans Can Vote Anywhere. It was very hot, and we shuttled between the very hot stage and the very cold ready room upstairs for most of the afternoon and into the evening for the Independence Day event. Every so often aircraft would pass over after taking off from Songshan Airport next door, and a vision flashed unbidden into my mind, of the local staff looking up at the military planes carrying the last of the U.S. staff off the island as the club lay abandoned due to a Chinese invasion and Politics As Usual. These thoughts thrust me into an even stranger state of mind. Unlike previous incantations, we were allowed access to all the stalls and people at the event, though it was sparsely attended. We played three long, lumpy sets, and everyone was hot and exhausted afterwards. I scored a couple of cupcakes as they were too sweet for the local staff and nobody else seemed to want cupcakes. Packing up amid the emptying complex, hauling our stuff down darkened halls and through empty gates, we took some cabs to Yuanshan Station, where some of the band was hanging out, but I was spooked and had to leave.

More surreality awaited me as I attended an event at Taipei Main Station, in the atrium no less, held by the publication for which I work, on tourism in Taiwan. Several bigwigs talked on the subject, including Premiere Lai, who was sitting once again a couple rows away. I talked with writer friend Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman, who were also there. Joshua mentioned something that had escaped my notice: The invitations had been sent out in English, many to foreign nationals, yet there were no English translations; the entire event took place in Chinese. It was a jarring disconnect from the messages being given lip service to at the event itself. Why, again, are we doing this? The location was selected “because everyone sets out from the train station” yet I wondered if these people knew that this exact spot was usually inhabited by Southeast Asian laborers on their day off.

My photography class’s last class was on Tuesday, and Chenbl and I worked hard to finish the accompanying photobook. These books have gotten better and thicker each semester, and this one is no exception. Some, if not most of my students have improved beyond recognition, and it’s a wonder to see them finding their individual styles and reveling in the practice of photography, a world they didn’t know existed before. We’ve become quite the big family over the years, and about a dozen of them are actually coming to Bangkok with us.

Bangkok? Oh yes, didn’t I say? Even though I’m still recovering from my trip to San Francisco, Chenbl and I are flying to Bangkok on Saturday to spend a week or so there. The reason for this is that, in addition to being a judge for the Bangkok Street Photography competition, I’m going to be teaching a workshop there with Rammy Narula and Barry Talis from Israel. Oddly enough, I’ve never been to Thailand before, only catching glimpses of it from across the river in Vientiane years ago when I visited Prince Roy there. People always exclaim in disbelief when I say I’ve never been to Thailand, which puzzles me, and, to be honest, is probably one of the reasons I’ve never gone, just because it was somehow expected of me, and things being expected of me nearly always pisses me off because it’s often because of the stupidest of reasons. But I’m happy to be proven wrong, and hopefully this will be one of those times.

So I’ve spent the last few days since the end of our class trying to rest up and recover and get my mind right. This has involved afternoon naps, copious amounts of tea, and watching every single A Tribe Called Quest video  – Rest in Power, Phife –  intermixed with early seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. Also Little Debbie Snack Cakes (“Zebra Cakes” for you Philistine kids who know not from whence you came). Am I showing my age yet? Today I had to go to the local government office to pay my housing tax, get my household registration for a gig we’re playing in Hong Kong this fall, as well as have some passport-sized photos made for said gig. Late-40’s passport photos usually tell a sobering tale, but I’m ok just being along for the ride so far.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 5:38 pm  
May 16 2018

Books, photography, albums, etc.

While it’s nice and all that my book Barbarian at the Gate: From the American Suburbs to the Taiwanese Army has been listed on Taiwaneseamerican.org’s 50 Books for Your Taiwanese American Library, their description of the book’s content is not quite accurate. But I suppose I’ll let any potential readers out there find that out for themselves. Coincidentally, also listed as well as shown in the lead image of the page is Francie Lin’s The Foreigner, which features one of my photographs as the cover art.

It’s hot and muggy out; everyone is waiting for the plum rains, but the weather just doesn’t seem interested this year. As the water flowing under the Bitan bridge assumes more of a coffee hue from the lack of rain, no doubt drought will be announced soon. I’ve been scanning old negatives at home while listening to podcasts, and am constantly amazed at how poorly the original photo labs printed these shots, cropping out significant portions of the photos and seemingly making exposure decisions at random. I’ve also been busy with my photography course, leading students around various part of northern Taiwan and covering material in the classroom, as well as planning for the upcoming BME street photography workshop in San Francisco that I’m teaching along with Andy Kochanowski. I’m looking forward to seeing the SF crowd again…if I make it into the country that is; I’ve successfully applied for the visa waiver program, but I’ve still got my fingers crossed that I’ll get a decent immigration officer. The Muddy Basin Ramblers’ third album is slowly coming to fruition; the two riverside listening tests we’ve held so far have been promising. Other members of the band have predicted that this one’s going to be big…we’ll see. I’m just enjoying the ride, and regardless of how well it’s received, I’m happy to have been part of it.

Riverside testing our new album.

The catchword for 2018 so far has been “surreal”…everything feels like a loaded plate balanced at the very edge of a table, and half of us just want to see it fall. The transition from winter to summer is usually the most volatile, atmospherically speaking. China has increased its efforts to erase Taiwan from everyone’s awareness, and for all of their crowing about democracy and freedom, businesses, governments and media all around the world seem perfectly happy to go along with the charade. For our part, our precious leadership here in Taiwan, which has become infamous for the many things it hasn’t done since it came to power, has decided that screwing up our air quality is no big deal as long as they don’t have to face any criticism from raising our laughably low utility prices. And the U.S. is…well, you know. Plate. Table. Shrug.

But hey, happy thoughts! I should remember that I have a great deal to be grateful for, many opportunities in the four+ decades I’ve been on this particular rock. I’m lucky enough to have a great place to live, a good employment situation, health and friends. So, as the great Joe Walsh once said, “I can’t complain (but sometimes I still do).”

posted by Poagao at 11:34 am  
Mar 26 2018

Another world

Saturday was the Calla Lily Festival in Taoyuan, and the Muddy Basin Ramblers were playing. Though the event wasn’t far from the high speed rail station, we took a van from the Xindian metro station, listening to tunes on the portable speaker I’d gotten in Vancouver along the way as the driver navigated the traffic both on and off the freeway.

The event went well enough, though there was no cover on the stage; the sun was strong and poor Redman was without sunscreen for the two 45-minute sets. The audience was enthusiastic and the kids were (IMHO) properly ignoring the red cordon around the stage and dancing to the music. After we got back to Xindian everyone split except Redman, Slim and I; we headed over to the river to hang out for a bit listening to the swooning sax music and reflect on the day before heading back to our respective abodes.

On Sunday, I took my photography students on a walk around Linkou. We met at Taipei Station and basically commandeered a bus as it was the first stop and we basically filled the vehicle. The trip out was smooth and fast, up the highway through the valley lined with metal-roofed factories and now impossibly high roadways, past the metro stop to the Zhulin Mountain Buddhist Temple, the next-to-last stop. I figured the wide-open courtyard in front of the temple, with a good flow of people coming and going, would be a good place to go over the basics with our new students, this being the first outside activity of the semester. A few mechanical problems such as buttons stopping working and batteries refusing to come out of cameras had me wondering if we should have informed the temple gods what we were up to beforehand, but thankfully nothing too serious (None of my students use film cameras, alas, even though I’ve suggested that it’s a viable option, and I would welcome such experimentation).

After we were done at the temple, we walked over to the touristy old street for some lunch (beef noodles), and as we were heading out again we bumped into Bin-hou, one of our classmates from violin class. He lives in the area, but it was a neat coincidence. He’s also studying trumpet, and is currently in possession of my old Arban’s book of exercises, which happens to include traditional Chinese text for some reason. When I first bought it around 1981, I had no idea why that was the case, but now I know.

We continued walking towards the highway, and an old, half-demolished rowhouse caught my eye, so I went over to have a look. Behind it we found an old tea farmer just finishing up work in the fields. He enjoyed the attention and took us on a tour of the remaining half of his old house, which was built in the 1930’s, and then invited us to his shop for tea. As it turns out, he’s 90 years old, and apparently lives alone with only a Filipina caregiver named Annie. The teas he served got cheaper and more delicious as we went, by design I’m sure, just to prove that expensive tea isn’t necessarily better. If you’re interested in dropping by for a chat and some excellent tea, the place is called Hongyuan Tea, near the corner of Zhongzheng and Jialin Roads in Linkou. Just look for the half of a house.

As we continued to walk, the older buildings were replaced more and more by huge, modern apartment complexes and vast, empty parks; fewer and fewer people were to be found on the streets despite the pleasant weather. We ended up in front of the Mitsui Outlet Park mall, and although class had officially ended hours earlier, most of the students were still hanging out with us. The afternoon was waning, though, so we officially disbanded, and Chenbl and I went over to the outlet mall to take a look.

The mall is basically a Western mall in virtually every respect, surrounded by huge apartment blocks fronted with floor-length glass windows and nary a rack of metal bars to be seen. Occasionally we would see an ROC flag hanging from a luxury balcony. “Foreigners, most likely,” Chenbl commented.

We went into full-on Mall Mode, looking through the shops where everything seemed to be at least 60% off (of highly inflated prices, no doubt); I even bought some baggy jeans as the jeans in every other store I’ve seen are skinny and I can’t stand skinny jeans. Dinner completed the Western Mall fantasy with an actual, genuine god-damned avocado burger that made me feel both intestinally and morally compromised. Half of the mall is exposed to the open air, and the roof is covered with grass; a musical group surrounded by kids was playing the courtyard, under a roof that is apparently meant to collect rainwater. Next to the mall is an enormous parking garage, because of course there is; there are also superfluous pools and fountains. It was all quite surreal.

Night had fallen by this point. Feeling depleted, we walked out the main gate, past the entrance fountains, and along the wide avenues lined with huge, gleaming apartment blocks adorned with art-deco LED trimmings that shot up into the night towards the airliners that flew over every few minutes. “Everything is so big,” Chenbl exclaimed.

“It’s like Banqiao,” I offered, but he shook his head. Banqiao is apparently child’s play compared to Linkou on Chenbl’s scale of Surreal Western Enclavities.

Maybe it was the avocado burger, but the surreal experience of the mall and just the feeling of just not being in Taiwan for a period of time made me look forward to getting on the metro home. As we waited on the elevated platform among the gleaming buildings, though, I couldn’t help but noticed a father yelling at his son while his daughter watched. The kid was playing on the ground, and the father made a sort of twirl, lifting his foot and actually catching, seemingly by accident, the kid’s head with his foot. The boy didn’t say anything, just looking up at his father, but I thought it odd. Then, just before the train arrived, the man lifted a foot and violently stomped on the boy’s toy car, prompting an outburst from his son that the father refused to acknowledge.

As I was looking over at the scene, Chenbl warned, “Don’t stare.” It did seem that the man probably had violent tendencies. I wondered if they lived in the area. What kind of life would that be? All I know is that, if that boy survives his childhood, that man will have a very lonely old age, provided he survives that long either.

A group of loud foreigners in shorts and baseball caps who had gotten on the train with us preceded us at the terminal station in Taipei, so we took our time walking to the MRT station. I was exhausted after two consecutive days full of events; all I wanted was some time in my comfy bed before facing another week of work and classes.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 12:06 pm  
Dec 11 2017

Not an easy weekend

Another crazy weekend with this year’s Tiger Mountain Ramble coinciding with cold, wet weather. I headed over to Bobwundaye on Friday night to reunite with our dear friend Steve Gardner for some serious jamming, and we made the acquaintance of another fine musician who came along for the gig: Jett Edwards, also a long-term American ex-pat in Tokyo. Jett plays a mean bass, and has seemingly endless energy in front of a crowd while being quite laid-back in person. Jett, Katrina and I were talking during a break about expats in general, and he mentioned that he’d encountered westerners in Japan who seemed to have “gone native” to the extent that they refused to speak English to him, only stammering confusedly in Japanese when he tried to talk to them. “Would these individuals happen to all be white dudes?” I asked him, and he gave me a knowing look.

“Of course,” he said, adding that in his experience, Black people don’t go native, at least not in that fashion. I was surprised to hear it; I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like that, and though I’ve gone through times when I avoided the company of westerners in general, particularly early on when I was studying Chinese, I’ve never gone to such extremes.

We played several sets, during which the thundering headache I’d had all day gradually subsided, but I felt a cold coming on, so I shared a cab with Cristina and Zach back to Xindian. I really should visit their new abode down there, it sounds very cool. Redman has apparently also secured a mountain lair…somewhere. I suppose he can’t be a very good spy if everyone knows where he lives. Oops, did I say “spy”? I meant “accountant”.

My cold was present and accounted for on Saturday, so I basically slept all day until it was time to head over to Tiger Mountain. I’d left in plenty of time to get there, but for some reason, after I exited Xiangshan Station, I could. not. find. a. cab. Several taxis drove by without stopping. One even stopped for a western couple standing not far away. I wondered if they too were heading to Tiger Mountain, and silently hoped they slipped in the mud and had costly dry-cleaning bills.

When I finally flagged down a cab, I told the driver about my difficulties. “Well, it’s no surprise,” he said, shrugging uncomfortably. “I mean, just look at you, dressed all in black, carrying a staff, standing on the corner there scowling at everyone…you looked like trouble. I wouldn’t blame anyone for electing to skip that fare for their own personal safety.” Well, at least he was honest; and I can’t find the lie.

The Tiger Mountain Ramble, which we’ve played every year since its inception, is always strange for me, centered around an abandoned temple into which some rather shifty local spirits have moved. It would be intimidating enough on its own, but fill it with hundreds of foreign devils, a technicolor stage truck, and several food stalls with rather expensive western foods, and it becomes surreal to say the least. The rain had stopped at least, though the ground will still muddy. I took some artsy mud shots with my phone. As one does.

Our show began after an excruciatingly long soundcheck. The sound people seemed to have little clue what was going on, and we eventually just said screw it, let’s start. Various instruments appeared and disappeared from the mix throughout the show, but the volume was painfully loud on stage. It’s a shame, because we all love playing gigs with our friends from Japan.

My ears and I all needed to rest after that, so I slipped out, luxuriating in the silence of the walk back down the mountain, though part of that silence was probably (hopefully) temporary deafness from the show.

As much as I wanted to rest on Sunday, I had to meet up with my photography students for class in the morning, followed by a trip out to Sanxia in the afternoon. We’d come up with a plan to take a bus from Ximen, and while that might have worked on paper, in practice it was rather trying. Though the light was nice, and there was a lot to shoot both on the bus and outside it along the way, the effort to remain standing on a crowded bus for over two hours as the driver stomped on his gas and brake pedals with the eagerness of a teenage Dance Dance Revolution aficionado was considerable. It was late afternoon by the time we staggered off the bus, and we headed over to the riverside for some peace. A small group of men were cooking under the bridge while another brought up some freshly caught fish for a meal.

We walked towards the main temple, which was packed with Pokemon-seeking zombies, providing a rather surreal foreground to the place, and then headed into the alleys. A few nice places have been built/renovated along the stream there, though a few pitiful remains of once-lovely structures remain. It’s a shame the owners lack the resources to fix them up; they could make a mint if they did so.

We took another bus on a thankfully much-shorter trip to the Shanjia train station, a station I recall from my army days as featuring a nice little stream running through it. The stream has largely covered by the new station, alas, but I did manage to get some photos, Nick Turpin-style, of passengers on the trains at the platform. Felt a little one-sided and fishbarrelesque.

I really would have appreciated a weekend to rest up from my weekend, but that’s just not the way things work, alas. I need to begin to work on our semester-end photobook, which means reviewing hundreds of shots from the past few months, and violin class again tonight has me thinking I probably should have practiced at some point during the week.

posted by Poagao at 12:15 pm  
Aug 20 2017

Weekend dichotomy

Saturday was spent sitting in a cafe by the window brainstorming on ideas for the upcoming semester’s photography class. Despite my best efforts, the number of students continues to grow, and it’s becoming more difficult to find ways to give each and every student the time and attention they deserve, but I think we can handle it. Chenbl is an excellent organizer, for one thing, and he also tends to remind me of things I’ve overlooked. It was a productive but somewhat frustrating day in any case.

Today, Sunday, I got up and took the MRT to the NTU Hospital Station (you know, the one in 2/28 Park that is not named 2/28 Park Station but after a hospital that is a block away thanks to the law that metro stations must if at all possible incorporate any nearby hospital in its name) to practice tai-chi. I’ve been making an effort to get back into shape, and in addition to picking up badminton again, I’ve been resuming my efforts to practice tai-chi and tuishou with Little Qin and my other old tai-chi brothers. Today I grappled with UPS Guy, whom you may recall from the days of yore in my tai-chi blog (which I will not be updating because I plan to redo the website and incorporate all my blogs into one gigantic mess for your further reading confusion). All things considered, including near 100-degree heat, I did pretty well. He still has a tendency to move too quickly and get ahead of himself, something I tried (and mostly failed) to take advantage of by taking his movement and encouraging him to go too far. After that I pushed with Little Qin, who, being somewhat less portly than he used to be, is easier to grab as he now has angles, kind of. I also enjoy talking politics with  Little Qin and getting his take on the events of the day. I still miss studying with Teacher X, though.

My friends at the indigenous protest were planning an afternoon of concerts and other activities, so I helped them set things up before hauling my instruments over to CKS Hall for a quick bite at Mos Burger. Even though I was nearly 45 minutes early, I found Thumper sitting in the sun. It was good I arrived early, my food took long enough to make me late to our 2:30 start time, but we’re nearly always late so it didn’t really matter. Sylvain was there apparently to steal all of my solos (I kid, I kid…I get paid the same no matter how many solos I have). We went through some old songs in the runup to next weekend’s Jazz Festival gig. Between songs I got Cristina to give me a few hints about my violin homework.

After practice, while the others talked about going to get pizza, I hauled my stuff back to the park, where the concert was in full swing. I walked around listening to the music and taking a few photos, feeling quietly happy and at ease as I tend to do in that crowd. I walked through the park, past the old temple that was playing recorded temple music to a swastika-adorned ghost money boat, and over to what I think of as the Protest MosBurger, as I tend to end up eating there while attending protests, before returning to the concert. They did actually serve food there, but I don’t like to take from them at all if I can help it.

The last act was an electric guitar/bongo drum  duo that rocked, but I had to leave. Work tomorrow, as well as violin class and more preparing not only for my class but the upcoming workshop and other photo events for the Dadaocheng Arts Festival. Back to it, in other words. But it was a nice Sunday away.

posted by Poagao at 10:51 pm  
Dec 11 2016

Of Rights and Rambles

This weekend has gone non-stop. It started Friday night when I piled my instruments onto the 650 bus to Liuzhangli so I could make a gig with the ramblers at Bob’s. And not just the Muddy Basin Ramblers, but famed bluesman Rambling Steve Gardner as well, who flew in from Tokyo for the Tiger Mountain Ramble on Saturday. We met Steve at the Yokohama Jug Band Festival a couple of years back, and we’ve stayed in touch, always prodding him to make a trip over. The gig was a riot, and Kat served up tasty meat pies, potatoes and pizza afterwards.

After hauling my ass out of bed Saturday morning, I put on some Rambler-approved clothes and again hauled my instruments out and took the subway to Ximen, where I stashed them so that I could proceed unhindered to the Marriage Equality event on Ketagalan Blvd. Even though it was just starting, huge streams of people were joining from all directions. It was difficult to get into the crowd; I haven’t seen that many people there since the Sunflower protest, so I mostly just walked around the periphery. Suming gave a short speech and sang, and there were other performers with the MCs on the stage.

It was heartening to see so much love, hope and idealism, a real contrast from the previous anti-marriage-equality protests, which were mostly driven by hate and spite as well as stacks of cash from American Christian groups. For one thing, the anti-equality protests were much smaller than reported, even though the churches bussed entire congregations up to Taipei, and populated mostly by middle-aged people; so many of them were dressed in white and wearing masks that it was alarmingly similar to a Klan rally in all but name; “Straight Power” was pretty much the theme, and people there would throw their hands up in front of their masked faces when I raised my camera to take a shot. A good 10-20% of the protesters were actual Christian clergy, priests and nuns in full garb. One tall Western priest stood by one of the “praying” priests, and I managed to not enunciate my hope that he would get deported for taking part in the protest.

But that would never have happened, as the Christians (who claim homosexuality is a “foreign influence, oblivious to the fact that Christianity is much more of a foreign influence than homosexuality ever was), carted in an Australian woman who has some kind of personal vendetta against her parents, Katy Faust, to actually address the Legislature on what she clearly knows nothing about. The appropriately named Faust has no expertise on either homosexuality or Taiwan, yet not a single lawmaker saw the obvious violations of the actual law that her visit incurred. The media hasn’t really been on board with Reality either, e.g. articles like this from Focus Taiwan, which calls the event a “concert” that only “thousands” attended, even though official estimates run from a quarter million and up, and highlights claims of “bullying” of Christians on the subject.

As I was wandering around the East Gate and up the road toward the Presidential Office, it occurred to me that these people, not just the people at the marriage-equality protest, but other similar groups like the Sunflowers, et al, are the very people who were targeted by government forces during the White Terror period. Forward-looking people, people with inspiration and ideas for the future. In the awful times after 2/28, all of us would have been on those lists.

And who would have been writing those lists? The people who showed up in white robes and masks to protest equal rights.

I would have liked to have stayed longer, but I had to go retrieve my instruments and head over to the Tiger Mountain Ramble, where we were playing in the late afternoon. The mountain road was apparently so difficult to navigate that my cabbie shushed me when I tried to tell him where the place was. “Don’t talk to me!” he said. “I’m trying to concentrate on these GPS coordinates!” He found the place despite this.

The ramble was a little behind schedule when I got there, putting my stuff away and greeting friends. The cloudy skies threatened rain, and someone had started a bonfire. Steve presented me with a lovely gift: His photobook, from his days as a photojournalist on the theme of the American South, specifically the people of Mississippi, entitled Rambling Mind. It is a beautifully printed, large-sized book, one of only a handful left from the print run. The photos inside are wonderful as well…it’s a real treat, and I’m so happy to be able to add it to my collection.

It started to rain as we climbed the metal steps of the mobile stage and began our gig. It was a raucous affair, and most everything went right. There was much dancing in spite of the rain, which got heavier as we played. Afterwards we had to slog through the mud to get back to the storeroom, and everyone was huddled around the former temple for shelter. I was tired after a day of walking around as well as the show, so I packed up and headed down the mountain on foot, pulling my cart behind me. I met one of the other bands on the way, and they said some very nice things about our show, and I returned their compliments.

This morning (Sunday) I had to head out again, this time to lead my photography students on a walk around Keelung. We met up in front of the train station at 10 a.m. to find a large gathering of Indonesians, including dancers, martial artists and singers, as well as stalls selling food and attire, and a stage. It was all very festive; I bought three nice new hats, but we couldn’t stay long; we had to catch a train to Keelung.

Of course it was raining, because Keelung. We got off at the brand-new train station, which is worlds nicer than the awful old station, which itself was…much more awful than the old Japanese station. Some people were a bit peckish, so we had some food at a breakfast shop where the owner told us how to get to the big KEELUNG sign at the top of the hill. “You go up,” he said helpfully.

So we went up, following alleys, complimenting one household in particular on their delicious-smelling curry rice and dodging the scooters that would occasionally charge up the steep slope. One of these was a Gogoro electric scooter, with no less than two people on it. Impressive.

We paused at the big KEELUNG and then proceeded up to the platform at the top of the hill, caught our breath, and then went back down again, this time taking a different, more circuitous route. Eventually we found ourselves back to the main road behind the station. We crossed over the old blue pedestrian bridge that’s been there forever, and walked towards the Miaokou market, where vendors were hauling their stalls out into the rainy streets. It’s always difficult to lead these photowalks because I remain a firm believer in the benefits of solitary ventures. “I’m just showing you this place and some of the possibilities,” I often find myself saying. “You can come back on your own sometime and really see it!” It might seem odd for me to be telling this to native Taiwanese people, but they almost always have never really been to the places I take them, or, even if they have, they never really noticed what was there. I think it works; several of them have come a really long way in their photography, which makes me happy. And after this rather fucked-up year, I appreciate such things more than ever.

posted by Poagao at 9:39 pm  
Apr 12 2015

Yokohama!

We were flying to Yokohama on Friday, but not out of Taoyuan. Instead, we were departing from Songshan Airport, whose unfortunate call letters are “TSA”. I was able to catch the subway from Xindian all the way to the airport with only one transfer. I hadn’t been to the airport since it’s refurbishing, and it looks cool in a faux-retro kind of way. Either that or it’s actually the original furnishings, just taken out of the cupboard where they were tossed at the dawn of the Age of Crap and dusted off. Our baggage included two tubs and a wooden stick, all boxed and labeled “fragile”.

Another surprised lay in store for us after we cleared customs, where the lines were so short none of us even thought of using the machines that do it automatically: Instead of some dumpy old airplane, we boarded one of ANA’s new Boeing 787s. I admit I didn’t realize it was a 787 until I’d boarded, put my stuff away, settled down and realized that there was seemingly no way to pull the window shade down (the windows are darkened with a polarization thingamabob). Only then did I notice the slightly taller windows and raised wings. When I related this exciting information to Thumper, he also became very excited, going so far as to actually shrug.

The flight was smooth and quick, aided by a healthy tailwind, and we were soon descending through the clouds over Haneda Airport, Tokyo’s “local” airport, which is ever so much more impressive than any airport in Taiwan. We got off and gazed out at the 787, upon which Slim realized that he had neglected to bring his bag with him off the plane. We waited while he went back to fetch it. This would become somewhat of a theme throughout our trip.

After deciphering the plate of multicolored spaghetti that is Tokyo’s subway map, we managed to find the train to Yokohama. When we got there, instead of figuring out exactly where we should head to get to the hotel, we stood around ogling a poster for the Yokohama Jug Band Festival, where we were a featured act. We later regretted this neglect when we found it was raining outside and we had to walk a bit more in the rain than we would have if we’d just looked at a goddamn map.

poster

But we found the hotel, the Hotel Plumm, which features daring shades of purple and green. Our room also had a lot of Shocking Pink. But it was indoors and they had hot water, so all was good.

We’d been invited to a pre-festival party a few stops down the line that evening, so we grabbed some instruments and headed out into the rain again, this time to a lovely little bar called the Blue Corn Cafe, where many talented Japanese musicians were putting on a show. We sat down and listened to some really great pieces, and met some of them as well as the organizers of the festival, including Mooney, Speedy and Tomo. Mooney is the head organizer as well as a musician, and Speedy is one of the best bassists I’ve ever seen. He lives and breathes the songs, and the double bass he plays is like part of him. Tomo hasn’t cut his hair in three years. We sat and ate burgers (though I didn’t seen any actual blue corn on the menu) and drank as we enjoyed the music. It was supremely comfortable, though Japanese people still insist on smoking in restaurants even in this day and age. At one point Mooney saw my trumpet and motioned for me to come up on stage. They were playing a version of “Everybody Loves My Baby” but it had a strange minor section I’d never heard before. “Do you know this song?” Mooney asked. I nodded noncommittally.

“I know…a version of it?” I said, but he was already going, so I did what I could. People seemed to like it, anyway. Conor gave some ripping solos, and Sandman played a bit as well. It was great fun.

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The subway was shutting down at 12:30 or so, so Tomo led us back to the station so we could hop on the last train back to Yokohama Station, along with 89 businessmen, two of them in each other’s laps. We cooled down in David’s room for a bit before heading off to sleep.

Breakfast the next day was downstairs from the hotel and next door at a Dennys-esque restaurant called “Jonathan”, with booths and newspapers and decent eggs. There was a Mandatory Jug Band “meeting” at the venue at 11am, but we had no idea what it was all about, so we just grabbed our instruments and showed up, only to find that it was an actual meeting, all in Japanese, and besides being introduced, there wasn’t much for us to do. It was odd seeing so many jug bands in one place, over 60 in all, with accompanying paraphernalia such as buttons, T-shirts, posters, etc.

We had some time, so I walked around the area a bit, along the canals, across some bridges and back. Another performance space lay under a large bridge nearby. An elderly man ventured out of his tiny old building to do laundry on the porch. Trains came and went. I love trains, bridges, and walking around such places, so I was very happy with it all. I browsed cameras at the BIC camera store, where an employee took way too much time connecting power to the cameras, but at least they let you try them, unlike shops back home in Taipei. I got a good feel for cameras I’d only read about, such as the Panasonic LX100 (good features but poor handling) and the Fuji X100T (very nice, lovely optical viewfinder), and the Sony A7II (too big and heavy, I still prefer the small and light A7r).

As I was meandering down a street, wondering what I was doing for lunch, I heard someone calling my name. It was Mojo. She, Eddie and David were in line for noodles at a popular shop across the street, so I joined them. The noodles, when we were finally seated, were very good, somehow emitting a smoked, barbeque flavor, albeit a bit salty. I redecorated my necktie with soup, so it wasn’t too bad. It seemed to be a family business, and it ran like clockwork. I wouldn’t want to be a new employee there. I wouldn’t be surprised if they make you sit and watch for a month before they let you into the kitchen.

Our afternoon show was approaching, so we walked back to the stage, which was on a sloping platform over a canal. We soon noticed that, despite its name, we hadn’t seen any actual jugs being played. Slim felt he might be the only actual jug player at a jug band festival, which would be strange. I also noticed that none of the washtub basses seemed to be able to hit actual notes with any kind of accuracy. A few were ok, but mostly seemed to be used as percussive instruments rather than melodic ones.

It was time to get ready, but as we pulled out our instruments in preparation, Sandman discovered that he had brought the wrong saxophone. It wasn’t a big deal as far as the afternoon show went, but he’d need to find something before the evening show. The sound on the canal stage seemed kind of tinny, and when I told them to put the microphone under the tub, they seemed shocked, as if nobody had ever thought to do that before. But they caught on, and before we knew it, we were playing, several women in geisha outfits, complete with green bottles of sake, dancing next to the stage as we played.

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The sun came out in response to Mojo’s bright yellow earrings, welcome after all of the rain and gloom. We put our stuff away after the show, and I walked around some more, enjoying just being in Yokohama. The cherry trees were in blossom, lit up by streetlights as dusk fell and uniformed persons shouted at pedestrians. I ducked into a curry place for an unremarkable dinner before catching another show under the bridge.

They were having a “washtub bass summit” when I returned to the venue. About a dozen makeshift washtub bassists were there, and they were all surprised to find that I was using a chopstick to pluck the string. They all used their hands, some gloved, some bare, on metal of nylon strings. The biggest innovation I saw was one guy who had a notched stick that could be used as a washboard in an emergency.

We all went out on stage, where Tomo was sitting with a banjo. He played a simple melody, and the dozen-odd washtub basses lurched into a rumbling accompaniment. It was a mess to hear. They gave everyone a measure to play individually, but that was fairly meaningless as well. I went through the motions of strumming, devoting most of my energy to avoiding rolling-eye strain, but I guess it was cool to at least see a bunch of washtub basses in the same room.

Steve Gardner was playing before us, and he invited us on stage to play on his last song. It was fun, but the key was a bit odd. I managed somehow, and then it was our turn.

thumbsup

Our show was great, to put it simply. The sound, the audience (except one large woman in the front row who seemed to have fallen asleep or passed out), the energy, the lights, everything was great. The stage was in a bar called the Thumbs Up. Some more bands played after us, but we had the prime spot, and we all got up on stage for a raucous, righteous jam at the end before retiring to the table for beer and sake and plates of food. We donated the tub and stick to an earnest young Japanese washtub bass player named JJ, who seemed to be trying to emulate Johnny Depp’s character in Alice. He was very happy. Everyone was very happy. I can’t remember when I’ve had such a wonderful time. Even though I was exhausted, I took the long way back to the Plumm, not wanting the day to end. Some of the others took this feeling a bit more seriously, as they went out to another place for food and only returned to the hotel at 4 a.m.

We got up a couple of hours later, around 6, in order to make our flight back to Taipei. The day was lovely, brilliant, sunny and warm. I wished very hard that I could stay in Yokohama, visions of playing gigs, studying Japanese and living in a tiny room somewhere around there dancing in my stupid little head, but we had to go. For a moment we thought we might miss our flight when Conor thought mistakenly that he’d left his phone at the hotel, even going back to get it before realizing it was in his bag all along (I told you this kind of thing would happen again). We made the train, however, and though I was told be the rear-train conductor to stop taking pictures of her hands (I wasn’t; I was taking video of her hands), we made it to the airport in one piece.

I spent as much of my remaining Yen as I could on a sandwich, and then it was on the 787 back to Taipei. Flying into Songshan is even more surreal than flying out of it; usually with Taoyuan there is that buffer period between the Outside World and Taiwan, in the form of a dusty, creaking bus, but this sudden transition via the subway was a little unsettling. Thumper took off, as well as Mojo, at the airport. David and Conor headed off back to Muzha. Slim got off at Qizhang, and Sandman at Xindian District Office Station. Then it was just me, hauling my luggage back across the bridge to the Water Curtain Cave.

Most of my stuff is unpacked, the handful of photos and videos copied. And now this account is written. The trip is done. It will take a while to sink in, however. It was one of those trips, a trip I didn’t know how much I needed. Time may tell how much.

 

posted by Poagao at 10:07 pm  
Mar 21 2015

Full Friday

Yesterday was an interesting day. It was Friday, which meant office work and wrapping up various tasks before noon. There was no room for delay, because I’d been asked by my old friend Chalaw to appear on a TV program with him in the afternoon. Also, the Ramblers had a gig at Cheng-chih University that night, so I had to suit up and bring all my gear with me in the morning.

Fortunately everything went smoothly; I caught the subway over to Houshanpi Station and got in a taxi with Chenbl and Xiao Guo, who were helping me out with all my stuff in exchange for getting to watch a TV taping live. Not a great deal for them, but I appreciated their help carrying all that stuff. The guard at the TV studios could have been Chenbl’s twin brother, a fact which both of them found quite amusing.

Chalaw greeted us in the makeup room, and we chatted for a bit before going into the studio for rehearsal. Some really good backup musicians were there, so we got to perform with awesome slide guitar, drum, bass and keyboard backup. After rehearsing once or twice, we recorded a song, and then another. It was quite cold, but hopefully I wasn’t too off-key.

I’m positive that I was off-key for the interview portion of the show, though. I’m terrible at interviews, always doing and saying the wrong things and looking at the wrong people, stammering my answers out and shaking my microphone. The editors certainly have their job cut out for them, is all I can say. Still, Chalaw and the hosts were very nice and accomodating.

We had to leave a bit early, so we could get over to Cheng-chih University for our soundcheck at 4:15. The cab took us over the bridge of the Jingmei Stream, through the campus gate and up the hill to the Arts Center, where the gig was being held in honor of photographer Shen Chao-liang’s exhibition on the topic of highly decorated, mobile stages in Taiwan. The Ramblers were to play on just such a stage ourselves, something we’d been looking forward to for a long time, as it is just so our style. Shen Chao-liang greeted me as we got out of the cab. He’s only a little older than I am, and has created several wonderful photographic works. He’s one of the best Taiwanese photographers out there, and it was great to talk with him. The prints at the exhibition were large and lovely.

Mosquitos were consuming Xiao Guo’s arm, so we booked it into the building and over to the rear veranda overlooking the river and the city beyond. The truck had already been set up in front of the empty stands. Due to space restrictions, the audience was being limited to 300 people via online registration. We went through the soundcheck with the very professional sound people, whom I duly added on Facebook later.

Chenbl had flute class that night and couldn’t stay, but Xiao Guo and I feasted on boxed dinners along with the rest of the Ramblers and the Lion Dancing troupe who were going to open for us. They put on a splendid show, though afterwards I heard one of them say ruefully, “I knew I shouldn’t have eaten before the show.”

Our show was next, and it was wonderful, even though I had a headache and kept wincing. The place was packed, the stands full and the audience spilling over both sides of the stage. The crowd was very enthusiastic about all the music, and virtually exploded when we started to play our version of the old standard Wang Chun Feng. In between songs we would raffle prizes and sell our “medicine”, students lining up in front of the stage. It was great.

After the show was another show, i.e. the folding up of the huge stage into a little blue truck. Everyone watched raptly as the various parts enfolded into each other, almost seeming to swallow the man who was operating the hydraulics. At the end he got almost as much applause as we’d gotten.

Most everyone had left by the time we got back out front to catch cabs back home, but after David and some others had taken the first cab, the second cabbie demanded NT$500 just for our luggage. He knew he had us in a tough spot, but we refused to give him the satisfaction and sent him packing without any fare. Of course, this meant that we had to hitch a ride back down the mountain, where we could catch a cab, but fortunately one of the group volunteered for shuttle duty. Finding a cab wasn’t difficult out in front of the campus, though Slim decided to go his own way.

So, all in all, a great day, made better by the fact that it’s now the weekend.

posted by Poagao at 10:58 am  
Mar 19 2015

Taitung, etc.

So we headed down to Taitung on Saturday morning. It was bright and sunny, the perfect day for a train ride. This particular train ride, however, was four hours long despite the fact that it was Puyuma Express. No matter, we were with friends and our spirits were high. Also, I’d arrived early so that I could pick up some decent grub to munch on while watching that beautiful east-coast scenery.

The journey went smoothly, though we had to keep an eye on Sandy, who kept testing the limits of just how long each stop was by getting off each time and standing on the platform until the conductor shooed him on board again. This situation was not helped by Conor, who simply made up a length of time for Sandy.

The Tropics were waiting when we stepped off the train in Taitung, the warm wind especially welcome at this time of year for Taipeiens such as ourselves. We caught some expensive taxis over to the old train station, which is now an art space, and set up on the small stage there. Some street performers were playing on the sidewalk, and an older man was playing a leaf. Soundcheck was smooth thanks to the crew, which included one of the Betelnut Bros., so they really knew their business. The only flaw became apparent when the breeze shifted so that we smelled the bathrooms next to the stage.

It was a good show, though we started slow. Kids were dancing, albums were sold and signed. Between the sets I had some chicken fingers at the cafe opposite where I was able to enjoy the view. Afterwards we caught the same cabs that we’d taken there and booked it up to Dulan. And when I say booked, I mean booked. The driver spent an inordinate amount of time in the wrong lane at an inordinately high speed. Seats were gripped, oaths muttered, followed by sighs of relief when we arrived in downtown Dulan. We were staying at Barry’s hostel. Barry used to run some bars in Taipei before moving down to Dulan. We tossed our stuff on the bunks upstairs and made our way to the Sugar Factory teahouse, where some excellent music was being played by some very talented individuals, including the inimitable Redeye. One of the women on stage was playing an interesting old trumpet, so during the break I asked to look at it. It turned out to be a very old Bach model, probably around 50 years old, with no finish left and buttery valve action. I played a little bit, and they asked me to play along, so I did. Eventually, the Ramblers got on stage to play, but not quick enough for an older foreign gentleman sitting nearby, who kept shouting at us to “Fucking play something already!”

It was a fun show, though I was already tired after the show and the previous gig. I left early to go back to the hostel. My bed had bad fengshui, however, being near the stairs, and I didn’t get much sleep.

Sunday morning on the back veranda as soon as Mojo had woken up, eating danbing and sipping doujiang as we cast a weather eye over the Pacific, making plans to go to the beach. We piled into Barry’s van along with his three dogs, and set out, stopping by his property to admire his huts and ducklings before arriving at the expanse of grey sand that was the nearest good beach. Most of the others went swimming, but as I was still getting over my cold, I only took off my shoes and waded in ankle-deep. The sun vanished behind the clouds appearing over the high mountains to the west, and there was a smattering of rain. We talked and breathed and strolled. Sandy was magnificent in his pink underwear.

Back at the hostel, we were treated to a delicious five-star lunch of paella and goat balls, prefaced by spinach soup. It was amazing and surprising. Mojo had to leave early as she was headed back to Taichung. As the rest of the guys were dedicating themselves to an afternoon of sitting in front of the hostel, periodically crossing the street to the 7-Eleven for beer, I elected to walk over to the Sugar Factory in search of hats or whatever else I encountered.

The factory held no good hats for me, alas. However, I walked around to an interesting photo gallery and talked to the photographer’s assistant for a while. It turned out that she knew my college roommate DJ Hatfield, who is living in Dulan these days. That weekend he was in Lugang, so we didn’t get a chance to meet up. Then again, it’s a pretty small place and everyone knows everyone. She said she was impressed by foreigners who take the time to at least learn the language, and expressed a bit of dismay about the backpacker scene. She wasn’t the only one. The more people I talked to, the stronger an impression I got that many locals aren’t really in love with Western backpackers.

I walked west, back into the town. There weren’t many people around, only a few gathered in a few yards around barbeques. I heard a lot of Amis language, which DJ is studying. It felt different than your average Taiwanese town, at once more orderly and neat and more interesting. There was only one temple, but many churches. I managed to find some hats I would have been interested in buying, but the shop owner was out.

We got the taxis, which are apparently the only taxis in the region, back to Taitung, which seemed in comparison like a huge metropolis. Still full of paella and goat balls, I only got a couple pieces of bread for the 4-hour journey back to Taipei. There was much less talking this time, instead more sleeping. It was after midnight by the time we got back. I’d like to visit Taitung and Dulan again, though.

Monday was rough. This whole week has been a game of catch-up. I’m taking violin classes on Monday nights, and I’m playing badminton on Wednesday nights. Yesterday I had to go change out the strings on my rackets, so I walked across the CKS Memorial. A large tent was being set up in the middle of the square. I took a couple of pictures when a guy in a black rent-a-cop uniform waved me away. “What?” I asked.

“You can’t take photos of this,” he said.

“Why not?”

“It’s private.” I pointed to the tent.

“Sure, maybe that’s private, but not where I’m standing,” I said. Then came a shout from another black-clothed fellow standing by the opera house steps.

“NO PHOTOS!” He shouted.

“WHY NOT?” I shouted back.

“IT’S PRIVATE. IT’S NOT ALLOWED!”

“THAT’S PRIVATE,” I shouted, wondering why I had to explain this to them so many times, pointing at the tent. “THIS ISN’T,” and I pointed at where I was standing. The gall of the man, sitting on the steps where I’d sat for days and nights 25 years ago protesting for democracy, telling me I couldn’t photograph there.

“OK, TAKE YOUR PHOTOS,” he called.

“THANK YOU.”

“AND WE WILL ARREST YOU!” he continued.

“HAVE FUN WITH THAT!” I called back, laughing. Really, I should have been outraged by his audacity, but it was just so pathetic. I had no idea was in the the tents, nor did I care. I kept walking around the tent, noting that it was for a Volkswagen event, with the slogan “Because it’s Volkswagen” on the side. Oh, so that’s why they’re acting all fascist, I thought to myself. Nice of them to say. I kept taking pictures, but I could tell from conversations with the guards that they knew exactly where their authority ended, and they were only required to say this shit by their employers. None of their BS was remotely enforceable.

The new strings on my rackets took some getting used to, but it’s good to be exercising again; I’m really out of shape after the long winter break.

Yesterday was also the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the student occupation of the Legislature. I spent a lot of the day in the area, walking around among the various tents and groups. It felt sad in a way. I didn’t see many people I’d known from the event, but I did manage to meet Ian Rowen, who wrote a nice academic piece on it, and a few others. The events on the street felt more like a tribute band performance than the original band coming back. The spirit, the people even, just weren’t there. It was all fans, groupies, people who had wanted their voice magnified by the original event. But then again I’m a cynic; there have been many positive developments in the year since, and I shouldn’t ignore that. I have no doubt that, should the need arise, they’ll be back. In the meantime, I do hope that the historic significance of the occupation is recognized and given the proper credit, though it’s inevitable that the truth will be “adjusted” by various parties along the way.

Anyway, tomorrow is Friday. It’s going to be a very busy day. And hopefully a good one.

 

posted by Poagao at 10:42 pm  
Jan 20 2015

Taichung show

We took a bus to Taichung on Saturday. Well, most of us did. Sandman got lost and couldn’t find the station in time, so he caught the next bus. But David, Slim, Eddie, Conor and I managed to board at the new Taipei Bus Station, hidden in the lofty heights of the Q-Square building, in time to get down to Taichung by mid-afternoon. Every time I travel to Taichung I wonder what it would be like to live there, and note how much it has changed since I went to college there. And every time I conclude that without a metro system I would probably find it quite inconvenient. Hopefully the first new mayor the city has had in well over a decade will do something about this situation. We’ll see.

We were playing at an underground live house, the Sound Garden, where the performance space seemed to be hidden behind a door in the “regular” performance space. I had to ask where the fire exits were, as the place seemed ready-made for disaster with one long tunnel to the exit. After our sound check I noticed that nobody was around, but when I went outside I found a long line of people waiting to get in.

The show was great, even though we were without Thumper, our percussionist. Mojo, who had been waiting for us there, was helping us keep time with some small cymbals, but I had to concentrate rather harder than usual on keeping the bass-line steady, as I could feel everyone leaning a bit more heavily on it than they would have if Thumper were there. The audience reaction was ecstatic throughout the show and encores. The mood was great, and we sat around signing CDs for a long time after the show. This was followed by a sumptuous dinner at a restaurant across the street, which ran long because we were all still high from the show and full of bright talk. It was after 1 a.m. before we caught a bus back to Taipei, and after 4 when I tumbled into the Water Curtain Cave, grateful for my bed.

Our post-gig dinner

Our post-gig dinner

 

On Sunday I practiced violin. You didn’t know I played the violin? That’s because I don’t, really. I signed up for community college classes that start in March, but I haven’t studied since I was a five-year-old Suzuki student with a quarter-sized instrument in Maitland, Florida. But Chenbl convinced me to give it a shot, and now I feel really sorry for my neighbors. Sure, I play trumpet at home at reasonable hours, but I know how to play the trumpet. A beginner violin student really should be exiled to a soundproof room for several months at least. But the violin is borrowed and the classes are cheap, so if it doesn’t take…well, no harm, no foul.

I saw “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” recently. I kind of had to, as every single friend of mine had asked me if I’d seen it, and, as a photographer, if the movie really resonated with me. It was a strange film, with great camera work, but it didn’t really resonate with me, probably because I was wondering throughout whether it should. Another reason was the way photography was portrayed in the film, and the nerd in me got in the way when I saw Sean Penn trying to act like a photographer. “I just want to be here, seeing it for myself,” Penn says at one point in the film.

“No, you’re not seeing it for yourself, that’s a frickin’ 400mm lens!” I say to the TV and any neighbors who are listening in. “And Ben Stiller just screwed up your focus anyway!”

 

 

posted by Poagao at 10:13 am  
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